Are You Actually Ready for a Difficult 14er? [Quiz]

 In Colorado, Colorado 14ers, Hikes, Planning, Skills, Survival
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Photos: Capitol Peak, 2015

As Colorado 14er season approaches, I’m getting a lot of reader questions that worry me. They go like:

  • “Do you think I’m ready for the Crestone Traverse?”
  • “Should I climb Longs Peak in June?”
  • “I’ve never climbed a 14er. Do you think I can do Snowmass Mountain?”

Now I really love reader questions. But “Do you think I can do this peak?” is one I honestly can’t answer for you.

It just wouldn’t be safe to say YES without knowing you and seeing you in action. (Also, it could get me sued. And I like having a roof over my head and pocket change for IPAs.)

colorado most difficult 14ers

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In my mind, there are exactly two ways to know if you’re ready to climb a difficult 14er.

And neither of them involve asking a girl on the internet who could barely pass Calculus.

They are:

  1. Take a guide.
  2. Climb a lot of easier stuff first (preferably with experienced climbers or as part of a mountaineering class).

Why am I being such a heavy about this? (Seriously, it’s not to discourage you and crush your dreams.)

It’s because Colorado 14ers are getting more popular.

Which means more and more climbers are getting in over their heads.

In May 2017, two friends from California were rescued by helicopter from the West Ridge of Quandary Peak. The men attempted this class 3 route despite having no climbing experience in the Rockies. A series of judgement errors, including a late start and inadequate supplies, led them to cliff out near the summit without the energy to continue.

Fortunately, both climbers survived with minor injuries. However, the rescue became a flashpoint for the climbing community, as you can read in this 14ers.com thread.

Note all the judgement about who “belongs” on a difficult 14er route and who doesn’t. IMHO, some of those comments are downright mean-spirited. But posters are also raising legit concerns about the influx of unprepared climbers.

A few months later, five people died in six weeks on Capitol Peak‚ making 2017 the deadliest climbing season in the mountain’s history. Several of the deceased appeared to be searching for an easier short cut down this notoriously difficult peak.

colorado most difficult 14ers

Why is this happening?

Now. I tend to be very pro-social media. I have no patience with people who whine that it’s turning the next generation into drones. (Come out of the 90s, dude.)

However, if you click through and read the Capitol article above, it does a good job of explaining how social media (and, erm, blogs)  can erode our perception of risk.

“Vicarious experience” can lead to a false sense of confidence.

For example, let’s say you follow a 70-year-old woman from Kansas on Instagram, and she just climbed Capitol Peak.

You assume that if she can do it, you can too.

But what her post may not tell you is that she hired a guide. Or maybe she’s actually an avid rock climber who’s been doing this all her life.

There’s also the possibility that she was just stupid lucky. (This happens a lot.)

When you see some goofball standing on top of a peak on Facebook, bear in mind that even completely clueless climbers will usually be OK.

This often leads to them getting overconfident and repeating the same mistakes over and over (often in front of a social media audience).

Yes, the universe smiles on fools and children. Which is great until … it doesn’t.

“At the risk of sounding like a cranky old guy with gray in his beard, it appears there’s been a change over time in how people approach the mountains,” Lloyd Athearn, Executive Director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, told Outside Online.

“In the old days, you’d connect with a mountaineering club or other climbers, and people would teach you in a progression of more serious mountains how to do this. Now, there’s very little experience learning the mountain craft.”

colorado most difficult 14ers

So to give you an idea what you’re up against on a tough 14er, I’ve put together a little quiz.

It’s not scientifically validated or scored. But it’ll give you an idea of a) the hazards involved, and b) the knowledge and skills you need to climb big mountains safely.

After you give it a go, scroll down for the answers. If you’re really brave, go ahead and share your score in the comments.

1. Which of the following is a “difficult” 14er?

A. Capitol Peak

B. Torreys Peak

C. Mt. Evans

D. Potentially, all of the above

2. Turning around by noon — even if you haven’t reached the summit — is the best way to avoid lightning danger.

A. True

B. False

3. According to the Yosemite Decimal System, what does Class 4 terrain look like?

A. Simple scrambling. You may need to use your hands occasionally for balance.

B. Moderate scrambling that requires you to use your hands. Handholds are usually plentiful. A fall could cause serious injury or death.

C. Difficult scrambling or easy climbing. A fall would likely cause serious injury or death. Sometimes climbed with a rope.

D. Near vertical. Requires technical climbing skills.

4. How fast can the average hiker scramble on Class 3 terrain?

A. 3 mph

B. 2 mph

C. 1 mph

D. <1 mph

5. A climber above you dislodges a fist-sized rock that’s now hurtling down the Class 3 route toward you. What should you do?

A. Try to dodge the rock

B. Watch the rock to make sure it passes you

C. Lean into the slope with your nose to the ground

D. Lean into the slope and duck your head

6. When ascending a loose gully with friends, which of the following techniques will NOT reduce the risk of rockfall injuries?

A. Spread the group out

B. Keep the group close together

C. Climb straight up in an echelon formation

D. Make a series of traverses in a single-file line

7. What’s your experience with scrambling? (Class 3 and 4 terrain)

A. I’ve never scrambled before

B. I’ve scrambled once

C. I’ve scrambled a few times with experienced friends or on guided trips

D. I’ve scrambled a few times and have taken responsibility for navigation and route finding

8. On the way down the mountain, you come to a Class 4 section that you ascended with no problem. However, the down climb looks gnarly. What’s your best option?

A. Turn around and climb down the pitch facing in

B. Ask your buddy to “meat anchor” you with a piece of webbing

C. Go off-route and look for a better descent route

D. Take a deep breath and attempt to down climb the pitch face out

9. You are following the standard route when you encounter a steep snow gully. What should you do?

A. Cross slowly, using your poles to keep upright

B. Make your way across by stepping in the footprints

C. Make a run for it

D. Belay yourself with your ice ax after assessing the avalanche conditions

10. You are headed down a 14er and concerned that you might descend the wrong gully. How can you make sure you’re on course?

A. Use landmarks you noted on the way up to retrace your steps, double checking with your map and compass

B. Look for cairns to follow

C. Turn on your GPS/phone app

D. Follow another party

11. Your friend slips off a ledge, falls 20 feet, and lands on his back on a talus slope. When you reach him, he’s conscious and trying to get up. How can you help?

A. Give him a hand to help him up.

B. Encourage him to stand on his own.

C. Ask him if he has any pain in his back or neck.

D. Tell him to lie still and stabilize his spine until you can rule out a spinal injury.

12. If you’re three miles from the summit of a 14er, about how long will it take you to climb it?

A. 2 hours

B. 3 hours

C. 6 hours

D. It depends on the elevation gain and terrain

13. When should you call 9-1-1 or search and rescue?

A. When you are tired or lost

B. When a member of your party injures an ankle or knee.

C. When death is imminent

D. When you are in a potentially life-threatening situation with no reasonable chance of self-rescue.

14. When you get to the summit, at least half the danger has passed.

A. True

B. False

colorado most difficult 14ers

The Answers

1. Which of the following is a “difficult” 14er?

D. Potentially, all of the above

There’s no objective rating system for 14er difficulty. The walk-up routes on Handies Peak and Mt. Elbert are often considered “easy.” But for some people, they may be extremely tough.

It’s also important to keep in mind that most 14ers have multiple routes. Walking up Torrey’s Peak via the standard route is relatively easy. Scrambling up via Kelso Ridge is more difficult and carries a higher level of risk.

The only way to know what’s difficult for you is to get some experience (ideally starting on easier peaks).

2. Turning around by noon — even if you haven’t reached the summit — is the best way to avoid lightning danger.

B. False

If there are danger signs like towering clouds or thunder, seek shelter and avoid committing to difficult terrain with no escape — no matter what time it is.

While thunderstorms are most common in the afternoon, they can strike at any time, including the early morning. You won’t be able to retreat quickly if a storm hits you on an exposed ridge.

Also, a climber on wet rock is like a dog on linoleum. You want to avoid scrambling in the rain whenever possible.

So on the difficult 14ers, it’s doubly important to check the forecast, monitor the weather, and practice conservative decision making.

3. According to the Yosemite Decimal System, what does Class 4 terrain look like?

C. Difficult scrambling or easy climbing. A fall would likely cause serious injury or death. Sometimes climbed with a rope.

Many people consider a 14er “difficult” if its easiest route crosses Class 3 terrain or higher. However, even some Class 2 routes can be treacherous, exposed, and scrambly. (Among the 14ers, Windom Peak and Missouri Mountain come to mind.) You can read a full explanation of the Yosemite Decimal System here.

4. How fast can the average hiker scramble on Class 3 terrain?

D. <1 mph

Many climbers who are new to scrambling get in trouble when they underestimate the time they will need to reach the summit. Remember that Class 3 and 4 terrain is slow and very committing. Don’t start a scramble if you have questions about the weather, your supplies, or your physical condition.

5. A climber above you dislodges a fist-sized rock that’s now hurtling down the Class 3 route toward you. What should you do?

C. Lean into the slope with your nose to the ground

If you know a rock is coming, get flat against the face and keep your neck straight. Don’t look up, which exposes your face, or down, which exposes your neck. If your hands are free, use them to protect your neck or lift your pack toward your head. Attempting to dodge the rock in an exposed area could cause you to fall.

6. When ascending a loose gully with friends, which of the following techniques will NOT reduce the risk of rockfall injuries?

A. Spread the group out

When rockfall is an issue, make sure that no one is traveling directly below anyone else. Keeping group members close ensures that any dislodged rocks won’t have time to gather momentum.

Be alert for parties above you in rockfall areas; often it’s best to wait and let them pass.

7. What’s your experience with scrambling? (Class 3 or 4 terrain)

D. I’ve scrambled a few times and have taken responsibility for navigation and route finding

Experience isn’t everything, but it does tend to improve a climber’s judgment. That’s why I’m a big proponent of starting with smaller, less risky climbs and working your way up.

Note that there’s a big difference between following someone else’s lead and playing an active role in group decisions.

This is especially important when it comes to navigation and route finding. All of the more difficult 14ers routes require proficiency in both. Several of the 2017 Capitol Peak deaths involved apparent route finding errors.

8. On the way down the mountain, you come to a Class 4 section that you ascended with no problem. However, the down climb looks gnarly. What’s your best option?

A. Turn around and climb down the pitch facing in

Facing in keeps your body in balance and makes it easier to see footholds below you. It also takes away the “spooky” factor of stepping straight into the air.

Use caution with assists (meat anchors). Unless your buddy is trained to assist you and has a strong body position, it may actually be safer to climb down the rock. Using a friction knot to belay yourself is actually much safer, so consider taking a light alpine rope and small rack on difficult climbs.

Avoid short-cutting the standard route. Several climbers have fallen to their deaths attempting to shortcut spicy sections of a route (notably the knife edges on Capitol Peak and Kelso Ridge). Trust that if there were an easier way, it would be the standard route.

One way to avoid the above scenario is to test yourself on the ascent. If you climb a difficult problem, immediately reverse and down climb it. This will increase your confidence on the descent (and could also warn you if you’re in over your head.)

9. You are following the standard route when you encounter a steep snow gully. What should you do?

D. Belay yourself with your ice ax after assessing the avalanche conditions

Carry your ice ax on high alpine climbs — and know how to self-arrest with it. Always assume that steep snow is a possibility, even in late summer. Make an exception only if you can see the entire route or have recent beta from a trusted source.

Hiking poles are fine for low-angle snow where the consequences of a fall are low. Keep in mind that it’s easy to snap or collapse a pole in snow.

10. You are headed down a 14er and concerned that you might descend the wrong gully. How can you make sure you’re on course?

A. Use landmarks you noted on the way up to retrace your steps, double checking with your map and compass

As you ascend the mountain, think ahead. Look for landmarks that will assist you on descent. Turn around frequently to see what the terrain will look like on the return trip.

Cairns and other parties are not reliable navigation aids. Make sure you know where you’re going. GPS/phone apps can be helpful, but never rely on them exclusively. What if you’re battery died or your GPS fell off a cliff?

11. Your friend slips off a ledge, falls 20 feet, and lands on his back on a talus slope. When you reach him, he’s conscious and trying to get up. How can you help?

D. Tell him to lie still and stabilize his spine until you can rule out a spinal injury.

This is a good place to mention that rescues on Class 3 and 4 terrain take A LONG TIME. If an injury occurs in your party, you will probably end up caring for the person for many hours before help arrives. So if you’re graduating to the difficult 14ers, it’s a good idea to take a Wilderness First Aid class (or a refresher, if you’ve been certified a while).

In this case, we have a significant “mechanism of injury” due to the long fall. So it’s important to assume your friend has a spinal injury until you can determine otherwise. You will learn a process for “clearing the spine” in your WFA class. In the meantime, get your friend to lie still and stabilize his head and neck in a neutral position.

12. If you’re three miles from the summit of a 14er, about how long will it take you to climb it?

D. It depends on the elevation gain and terrain

A few years ago, our group was descending Little Bear. We were almost back to camp at about 4 p.m. when we met a father and daughter heading up the gully. We warned them that it was VERY late to start the climb. Their answer: “But the summit’s just 2 miles away!”

I’m not laughing. I can totally remember being that green.

But as noted above, two miles on Class 4 terrain (like Little Bear) takes a lot longer that two miles on trail (like Mt. Elbert). It’s also important to factor in the elevation gain. Steep slopes will slow you down.

As a general rule, expect the hard 14er routes (Class 3 and 4) to take 50 to 100 percent longer than the easier ones.

13. When should you call 9-1-1 or search and rescue?

D. When you are in a potentially life-threatening situation with no reasonable chance of self-rescue.

Some truths about SAR:

  • In most locations, it’s a volunteer organization. The rescuers don’t get paid to put their lives on hold and put themselves in harm’s way to assist you.
  • It’s funded by taxpayer dollars.
  • When a call comes in, it takes many hours for the team to mobilize and reach you.

Given these realities, your job as a responsible climber is to self-rescue if possible.

Lost? Head for the nearest road or catchline, even if it’s away from your car.

Injured? Consider immobilizing the injury as best you can and walking out. It may suck, but it will almost certainly be faster than waiting for SAR.

That being said, don’t wait until the situation is dire, either. If you’re in a dangerous situation, and you’re convinced self-rescue isn’t a reasonable option, make the call.

14. When you get to the summit, at least half the danger has passed.

B. False

Getting to the summit really means nothing. Eighty percent of mountaineering accidents happen on the descent when climbers are tired and losing focus. So save some juice for the way down, even if it means turning around before the summit. It’s always best to live to climb another day!

colorado most difficult 14ers

Bonus Question

15. I passed the quiz! So now I can go and climb a difficult 14er, right?

🙀🙀FALSE!🙀🙀

There’s a big difference between knowing the rules and being able to put them into practice in real life situations.

So if you’re thinking about hitting some of the harder 14ers routes, consider taking some mountaineering classes to sharpen up your skills.

Again, the only way to really know if you are ready for a hard 14er is to climb a lot of easier 14ers. Preferably with safe and experienced people.

Hope you enjoyed the quiz! If you have any thoughts, questions, or tips to add, definitely jump into the comments. 👇

miss adventure pants, colorado most difficult 14ers

 

Originally published June 18, 2018.

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